So this is a bit unscheduled, but using a photo of Justin Hardee in my last piece was very intentional. I feel that Hardee has been a solid special teams player and team contributor but has mostly gone under the radar to the casual fan. That then got me to thinking about other underappreciated Saints players from the 2017 season and what plays can help elevate their profile.
Manti Te’o – Linebacker #51
Now, a lot of people appreciate Te’o and his stellar year last year. But it didn’t feel right to not include him as he’s not entirely a household name. I’m choosing his run stuff against the Falcons as his play of the year. Actually, think of this one as moment of the year for Te’o. Because it’s two plays.
The first is a rangy run stuff on Devonta Freeman who takes a run to the outside. Manti mirrors from the middle of the field to make a stop on the 1 yard line to save a touchdown with David Onyemata. He sheds a block from his upcoming victim on the way.
The second, is the very next play where he blows Alex Mack up in the running lane, forcing Freeman to run into him and causing a fumble that Te’o, with great awareness, recovers. That second play also lead to one of the better Saints gifs of the season as he and the rest of the defense charged downfield for their takeaway photo.
Justin Hardee – Defensive Back #34
Hardee was one of my favorite UDFA’s coming into 2017. His special teams acumen, team-oriented attitude, and NOLA-style swagger made him a perfect fit for this 2017 squad. His play of the year came in the dome as well as he joined Steve Gleason and Nate Stupar among the list of those who have blocked punts leading to a score at home. Since Gleason, anytime a punt is blocked in New Orleans- the roof comes off the house.
Hardee blew right by the long-snapper and interior protection by beautifully jumping the snap. He busted right through the middle and got both hands on the ball, sending it careening into the air off the turf and right into his hands for the first six points of the game.
Chris Banjo – Safety #31
Banjo signed to the Saints last season from Green Bay and has been an incredible asset on special teams. Though he did make a great interception off the hands of Austin Hooper in the Week 14 TNF game, his special teams play is of extreme value for this team. His 332 special snaps were the most on the team in 2017. He’ll have some younger competition coming in with Kamrin Moore taking snaps at safety while playing a special teams role, but he’ll certainly put up a fight to maintain the gunner role.
That gunner role is where I decided to give his play of the year. His INT against Atlanta was great, but that game ended in a loss so somehow it feels less weighted as a highlight. I’m perfectly okay with being wrong though. Because this play, in which he strips Carolina punt returner Kaelin Clay on the 47 yard line turned a punt from the 5 and good field position for the Panthers into a 48 yard gain. That next Saints drive ended in a field goal and a three-score lead to close out the game despite another Panthers touchdown. This is a good example of a player remaining engaged and in pursuit despite at first ended up being the play.
Zach Line – Fullback #42
Zach Line drew his fair share of penalties last year, enough to get under any viewer’s (and coach’s) skin. But when he had the key or lead blocking assignment, the guy was a bulldozer. If you look over most of the Saints’ goal-to-go rushing touchdowns, Line was the lead blocker. Other time, he was the disguise for the outside run because of how often Sean Payton calls power rushing plays behind him. But I’d say his best play came against the Jets in week 15.
His lead block sprung a 50-yard Mark Ingram touchdown run which sealed the game for the Saints and put Ingram over 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season. The first time that’s happened since Deuce McAllister in 2003/2004 (and 2002). Line took over principle fullback roles after veteran John Kuhn was placed on IR in September. He filled the role well, which you can see if you watch the rest of Ingram’s clips from this video. It’s easy to see the value the Saints put in Line considering they’ve resigned him to a two-year deal back in April.
Brandon Coleman- Wide Receiver #16
Coleman catches a lot of grief for not playing like a 6’6″ wide receiver. But last year, he started to look a little more like his college self as a dominant force at Rutgers. He had eight catches for 20 or more yards in 2017. But his run blocking has solidified him as an integral part of the Saints offense. His 651 offensive snaps counts place him seventh among team starters and second only to Michael Thomas among wide receivers.
The play below, I consider his best play of the year. It shows how a wide receiver can be indispensable without catching a pass. At the first clip of the highlight video below, he helps seal the hole for a big 72-yard run by Mark Ingram. Coleman gets the block on James Bradberry at the line of scrimmage and then hustles all the way down the field to try to get another on Daryl Worley. That’s the kind of team-oriented play that gets you resigned for another year in New Orleans.
Brandon Coleman Bonus: Here’s him taking a pass from the flats from a hopeful two-yard first down to a 54-yard catch and scamper. Had he not lost his footing effectively tackling himself, I would have chosen this play.